Can Tourism Thrive in Appalachia?

by Lindsey Owen
1 comment

East Tennessee experiences a tremendous amount of tourism thanks to towns like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. It’s home to Dolly Parton’s theme park, Dollywood, and hundreds of miles of scenic hiking trails. The area sees more than 12 million visitors on average.

But what about the rest of Appalachia?

Rachel Chen, professor in the Department of Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management (RHTM), and Tim Ezzell, research scientist in the Department of Political Science, have set out to better understand and improve Appalachian tourism.

The project, which began in November 2017, is using surveys (quantitative analyses), site visits, and focus groups to understand the current state of tourism in a region that is home to around 25 million people across all of West Virginia and 365 additional counties and eight cities in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Chen developed two surveys: one focused on visitors’ experiences and perceptions and the other focused on stakeholders’ attitudes and expectations toward tourism development in communities throughout the 13 states.

“It has been a pleasant process to form and speak to a group of tourism advisory councils that are leaders in tourism-related organizations in the Appalachian region,” says Chen. “Those leaders in communities, tourism businesses, and governments provided their thoughts and perceptions toward opportunities and challenges of tourism development in the region.”

Ezzell, Stefanie Benjamin, an assistant professor in RHTM, and team members will work on the site interviews and focus groups for the qualitative information.

To aid in the research, Ezzell and Chen received a $200,000 competitive grant from the Appalachian Regional
Commission (ARC), a federal–state partnership that aims to create opportunities for economic development for people in the Appalachian area.

According to its website, the ARC supports tourism projects such as “developing strategic plans and feasibility studies to help communities maximize the potential of their cultural assets.”

“This is the first granted project in the history of the Appalachian region that focuses on tourism and trends in the rural and mountain communities,”


The UT study covers 205,000 square miles and is one of the most comprehensive of its kind conducted by the ARC. Chen predicts that results from the study will be applicable not only to the Appalachian area but other rural regions.

“This is the first granted project in the history of the Appalachian region that focuses on tourism and trends in the rural and mountain communities,” says Chen. “The outcomes of the project will, hopefully, connect the perceptions and experiences among locals, nonlocals, and community decision-makers toward strategically sustainable business and tourism development.”

Results from the study are set to be published in early 2019. Soon, towns in Appalachia will have the knowledge and expertise that Chen and Ezell have found in areas like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge to benefit their communities. East Tennessee’s wealth of tourism could begin to spread across all of Appalachia.

Photo courtesy of Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau

1 comment

Marta Parsons November 30, 2018 - 3:17 am

I am impressed with this study. I love the Appalachian Region since attending UTK many years ago. Although I have spent most of my adult life in the Nashville Franklin area I intend to move to upper East TN after my elderly parent dies. I visit the area often. I have many friends there.


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